Good Design. Can it Last?

Funny thing about design: When it comes to cars, planes, computers, gadgets and clock radios I like things that have almost no detailing at all.

When it comes to bicycles, motorcycles, mountaineering gear (not that I’ve ever climbed a mountain), I like the detailing the most. They must bristle with exotic machined anodized expensive hardware.

Each philosophy has its distinct place.

I was reminded of a documentary about life on a submarine; a psychologist was explaining how, unlike an airliner where all of the technology is deliberately hidden behind plastic panels, earthy colors and subtle lighting to soothe the passengers, in a submarine all of the real hardware is laid bare. The arrows and labels and bright colors are all designed to make the crew member aware of the technology, and to be able to see when things are breaking down, and to handle with caution.

On some caveman-like level, we crave comfort and simplicity whenever we are helpless passengers. When we’re active participants — especially when danger is involved — it’s the other way around.

Right now though, in the general scheme of things, there’s a blurring going on in that design thinking. Take cars for a moment: with manufacturing techniques so well perfected, it was possible to really tighten up the gaps, crisp the edges, mix the materials — the result being more upscale classy cars; Cars, where the form — and the quality of the detailing, defined the identity of the different brands.

Then almost overnight, all that went out the window. It wasn’t the quality of the detailing, but the sheer amount of the detailing that mattered. Subtle was replaced by gnarly. The car as a submarine, but without the rationalization. As to the form: elegant was replaced by funky. Form followed funk instead of function.

Take BMW as an example. In a nutshell, they were generally handsome, and looked expensive. Put a Hyundai badge on one and people would laugh. Today BMWs are just plain stupid looking, and if you put a Hyundai badge on one, people would say: “Oh, the new Hyundai…”

Home stereo systems now look like Japanese cartoon robots from the ’60s; they shout at you even when they’re turned off.

Brand name computers now look like home made kits, with miss-matched panels and fuzzy blue lights…

On a personal level, I cringe at what’s going on. If I won the big lottery and could go out and buy any car at all, I’d walk past the new cars and choose a used model about two generations old. But that’s just me.

The rest of the world seems to love this new “Stupidness,” also known as “Lifestyle” design. The new BMWs sell like hotcakes; the Audi Q7 is a massive hit…

Which brings us to Apple, and why I’m nervous. Every brand has their heyday, or, sweet spot in time. Getting back to the cars it was 2000 to 2005 for Audi. At the time I was thinking: “I hope no-one poaches their chief designer, or all this could go out the window…” Then someone did, and now we have the Q7.

Apple is now in the middle of its heyday. Analysts recently put some enormous “billions of dollars” value on the contribution of Steve Jobs to Apple’s worth. I think Jonathan Ive, the man who defines the design, is right up there; Give him whatever it take to make him happy. Let him and Steve force their good taste on the buying public. They know what’s best for us. Don’t follow the crowd’s Stupidness fixation; what would they know?

I think the crunch will come with the new iMac. Will I say, “Yes!” Or will I say, “No, no, No!”

Apple is not the submarine — it’s the airliner. Have a smooth flight.

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